The stage is set, and the props are ready, for Friday night’s final act of the Roger Federer extravaganza. Andy Murray spoke for all of tennis when he said “I think it’s going to be emotional.”
With a full house of more than 15,000 fans gathering at the O2 Arena on Thursday to watch Federer practice, this weekend’s Laver Cup has already been upgraded from fringe event to blockbuster status.
Indeed, one wonders which London-based match will attract more global interest this year: the Wimbledon final or Federer’s farewell, which has now been confirmed in his personals.
Nadal will be partnering Federer, as expected, with American duo Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock the opposition. When asked about the challenge on Thursday, Tiafoe said “I’m excited to play two young guys.”
Even Nadal looked nervous, having flown in as late as possible due to the delicate condition of his pregnant wife Maria Francisca Perello.
“Everything will be difficult to handle,” Nadal said, “especially for Roger, no doubt. For me too. One of the most important players, if not the most important player in my tennis career, is leaving, isn’t he?”
Among the World team – who are trying not to be the villains of the piece on Friday – one phrase is still resurfacing. When they instinctively refer to Federer’s “last dance”, they’re echoing Michael Jordan’s run to the 1998 NBA Championship, which spawned a stunning Netflix documentary of the same name.
The comparison – like everything else this weekend – is bittersweet. While it accurately reflects Federer’s position among the ultimate sporting pantheon (Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Usain Bolt, you know the drill) it also highlights the biggest weakness of the weekend ahead. The inescapable truth that there is nothing significant to play by.
In an ideal world, Federer would love to go out and fight for his sporting career at a major tournament – just like Serena Williams did when she saved five match points in a thrilling final against Alja Tomljanovic at the recent US Open. Instead, he is pushing his destroyed knees through a double exposure that is really.
Still, at least, Federer’s long goodbye has provided the fifth edition of the Laver Cup with a purpose it has lacked until now. And the low-stakes surroundings of the O2 Arena provide the perfect setting for a man whose 41-year-old body has finally broken down. The fact that Federer founded this event himself, in 2017, suggests that he can add “seeing the future” to his long list of achievements.
Behind the scenes, the Laver Cup social media team is enjoying the so-called Big Four coming together on the European team for the first time. Even before the tournament kicks off, we’ve already seen them sharing court for a double knock-off, piling into the Tower of London for a smart private dinner, and discussing local architecture on a walk on the South Bank.
“What happened to?” asks Murray in one short video, looking up at the pointy top of The Shard. “That’s the way it is. It’s like broken glass,” Federer replied. Even now that these millionaires have reached their mid-30s, it still feels like Dad. As if to emphasize the point, Novak Djokovic, the eternal younger brother, pipes up enthusiastically from the sidelines: “Andy, he’s giving you lessons about London!”
Murray is in elevated company here. Ten years ago, he was earning his place among the big boys at the finals, reaching the semi-finals at least nine times in ten starts. Now, the other three have been left behind in the rearview mirror, as they put together a baffling total of 63 major titles.
But Federer clearly considers Murray a worthy member of the gang. So he has been given the support slot on Friday night, playing singles at 7pm against Australia’s Alex de Minaur before the night’s main event begins.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Murray praised Federer for the usually meticulous script of his own departure. “The way Roger went about it,” Murray said, “a lot of things seem to be right. That’s something we can all learn from as well.
“There’s a lot of emotion going around with all the players,” Murray added. “You would think for Roger it will be extremely difficult, but for many players it will be difficult. Especially [because] we are all proud and excited to be a part of this team and to be here for their last game. He feels this is the way he will finish his career.”